Dakota Carter found himself falling behind his classmates at Charlotte High School. A freshman at the time, academics weren’t a priority for him anyway. Dakota had grown up working on cars in his grandfather’s garage, and he knew that’s what he wanted to do after high school.

He just didn’t see how school would really help him get there.

That’s when one of his teachers, Todd Kleinow saw his potential and recommended Dakota for the school’s CHS CARES program, one of three different pathways of Charlotte Early Middle College.

“Before the program, I didn’t really want to be here,” said Dakota, who is set to graduate from the Early Middle College program this spring. “I never really gave much thought as to how I was going to get (to be a mechanic). I just knew that it was going to be a struggle.”

The CHS CARES program, though, changed Dakota’s entire outlook. Smaller class sizes and a pathway that matched up with his career aspirations led to a renewed focus on academic success.

“The smaller class sizes really helped,” Dakota said. “If you have to ask questions, you don’t feel like an idiot in front of a whole bunch of people.”

Prior to entering the CARES program, Dakota had allowed a learning disability to hold him back. He credits Mrs. Anderson, who works with CARES students on Michigan Merit required classes, for guiding him through his required courses.

“The bigger classes, he was kind of lost in the shuffle,” said Debbie Carter, Dakota’s grandmother. “He was afraid to ask questions because most of the kids were getting it, and he wasn’t. The Early Middle College opened up a whole new door for him and put him on a path toward where he wanted to go as opposed to sitting in a class being forced to do things he wasn’t good at or didn’t care to do.”

Fully motivated in reaching his goals, Dakota finished his graduation requirements a semester early, allowing him to spend his final year of school in the Auto Tech program at Lansing Community College in the morning and afternoons in the shop at Duro Tech Automotive in Potterville where he works as a co-op student.

“By providing him a more individualized pathway within the Michigan Merit curriculum and coupling that with the career field he wanted to go into, it really motivated him as a student and provided him the opportunities to match up what he was learning in school to what he wanted to do afterwards,” said Dr. Bill Barnes, CHS Principal. “That is really the goal, finding ways to get kids engaged in what they really want to do after high school and provide them the support while they are in high school to get the credentials they need to do it.”

Dakota will graduate from the Early Middle College with two state certifications, opening a number of opportunities in the auto tech field.

There are currently 23 students enrolled in the Early Middle College program, up from 12 students who participated in the first cohort of the CHS CARES program three years ago. The Bulldog Academy, a partnership with Ferris State University, was established two years ago and the Capital Region Technical Early Middle College, a partnership with Eaton RESA, was established last year.

“We’ve established multiple pathways so students could find where they fit best and work within their own niche,” Barnes said. “Each one has a little bit different outcome.”